The Chair welcomed the guest to the committee and a short introduction was given by Members.
Mr Staniford presented a series of slides which explored the opportunities and priorities involved in implementing a national strategy to tackle loneliness and welcomed questions from the Committee.
Tackling loneliness: exploring opportunities and priorities for the national strategy:
Q – Please introduced yourself and offer an outline of the DCMS Tackling Loneliness Team and its main objectives?
Mr A Staniford, Senior Policy Advisor, Tackling Loneliness Team, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) joined the team in April 2018. He said that he had previously worked in local government, spending the majority of his career at the Brighton and Hove City Council as the Housing Strategy Manager. During that time, he was responsible for the Housing Strategy and worked on a number of cross-cutting themes with health and social care such as, the Health and Wellbeing Strategy, Rough Sleeping, Travellers and Supporting People. Mr Staniford said he was a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing and a Board Member for the South East Region, and Chair of the CIHSE International Housing Group. To deliver a strategy that cuts across government, the Tackling Loneliness Team it is comprised of staff on secondment from 9 government departments. The DCMS team worked in conjunction with Tracey Crouch (Minister for Sport and Civil Society) who was appointed as the lead for cross-government work on loneliness and played an active role in supporting the delivery of the governments plan. Mr Staniford said that it was important to understand that tackling loneliness mattered to everyone, whether it be the individual, the employer, communities, educators, professionals. Loneliness was something that everyone could relate to, yet it is often something we find difficult to talk about when we are lonely.
Q – When is the secondment period for your staff coming to an end?
Mr Staniford said that Phase 1 with the initial 12-month secondment was primarily established to develop the strategy and ensuring that the lessons learned were built into future policies. Work was being done to identify ways to deliver phase 2 of the strategy and the work that would need to be incorporated post April 2019
Q – Is there a reason why someone who is lonely would prefer to complete a national survey online rather than complete a survey in person?
DCMS has been testing the draft loneliness measure both online and face-to-face to help understand how people react and respond to the questions. For adults, DCMS tested the questions online through the Community Life Survey which is used to track statistics on issues that were important to encouraging social action and empowering communities. This included volunteering, community engagement, wellbeing and loneliness. The reason why the surveys were carried out online for adults was because the set of questions used had been tested in a number of global surveys and research and were proven but DCMS wanted to see how they worked together. Less was known about how younger people would react to the questions so DCMS worked with the Office for National Statistics and Children’s Society to carry out face-to-face interviews to understand how the respondent identified and engaged with questions relating to loneliness. Guidance on the preferred methods of questioning people about loneliness would be issued in November.
Q –Does the variable in age change the response you receive i.e. are those who are younger more likely to answer the survey more openly compared to those who are older?
Mr Staniford said that the questions had been tested on adults, however, they had not been trialled with younger persons. Issues were identified around the phrasing which caused some confusion, however, they were well engaged and recognised what loneliness was. Work has since been done to rectify the initial issues to ensure a more child-friendly approach. The survey for adults used a total of 4 questions, 3 of which were tested and approved by the University of California model and the questions proved to be successful in getting the correct evidence to measure loneliness in adulthood. The Children’s Society employed very skilled and capable researches who specialised in understanding loneliness to carry out 45-minute, face-to-face interviews, with younger persons. As this was an area that had not been tested, the interview was used to capture a more detailed picture in terms of how a child recognised loneliness, how loneliness was affecting a child’s behaviour and then what methods that child used to manage their loneliness.
Q – Would the national strategy focus on those over the age of 65 or would it be a global strategy for all?
Mr Staniford said that academic research and Office for National Statistics analysis showed that loneliness fluctuated over the life course, and certain life events could increase the risk. There was a number of trigger points that affect loneliness such as: leaving education, entering a period of poor health, being widowed (bereaved), becoming unemployed (or retiring), becoming a carer (or stooping a caring responsibility). The age range which had reported higher levels of loneliness was those between 16 and 24, the trend then dropped through middle age and peaked again at older age. Whilst previous work has focused on older age it was evident, following recent statistics, that the strategy needed to take a more balanced approach. If people were equipped with the ability to recognise and tackle loneliness at a younger age, the tools they required early on could potentially help them through life’s journey into older age.
Q – Does prevention feature within the strategy?
Mr Staniford said that the most basic interventions could have the most significant impact. Evidence showed that volunteering for just 2 hours per week helped to reduce loneliness in older adults and widows. The most basic interventions started with engaging with people in the community and using social activities to help reduce feelings of isolation. Costa Coffee recently joined the initiative to tackle loneliness by launching a scheme called ‘Chatty Cafe’ providing people with the choice to sit at an allocated table and engage with others who feel equally isolated and encourage that social interaction. Further research needed to be done to look at the interventions required to tackle isolation. Social prescribing pilots were showing promise in helping to connect lonely people to the measures and interventions needed to help with isolation. Mr Staniford said that a recognised factor associated with high levels of loneliness relevant to local authorities was neighbourhood engagement, those who felt they did not identify or belong to their neighbourhood.
Q – As we move towards a modernised society, the face-to-face services we once had to physically access are moved online which restricts a person from having that social interaction, what is your view on how this affects loneliness?
Mr Staniford said that some retailors have adapted their spaces to include cafes and use these areas to promote group activities in support of helping to tackle social isolation. An energy company had also joined the initiative and trained it’s call centre staff to identify dementia and recognise vulnerable callers. Whilst from a business point of view this may have been seen as quite disruptive, the company recognised the opportunity and arranged for staff to schedule in social calls to those vulnerable clients during the non-busy hours. This was not only beneficial for the staff member who may be in a very repetitive job but was also beneficial for the customer who retained that social interaction and also the organisation which was able to retain the link with those customers. Corporate responsibility was something that needed to be considered by companies from the start. In terms of supporting customers through the transition from old to new modernised services, Mr Stanford said that there were a number of lottery funded charities the helped to support organisations to address the needs of vulnerable customers in the transition to a digitalised world. Government was working with companies to adopt this way of working as part of the loneliness strategy, good organisations however already had policies in place to support staff and customers and were happy to engage with the strategy’s proposals.
Q – is there correlating evidence that suggests that those who experience loneliness at a younger age are more perceptible to experiencing loneliness at an older age?
Mr Staniford said that there was a significant gap in the evidence base as the concept and questions around loneliness were not available in existing longitudinal studies. In order to gather the evidence through a person’s life this would require a new batch of volunteers to be studied for potentially 60+ years.
Q – In terms of social prescribing, Kent has a significant problem with getting GPs signed up to this, is there evidence of this elsewhere?
Mr Staniford said that GPs published their own manifesto on loneliness, so it was evident that loneliness in their patients was an issue for them. They highlighted that three out of four GPs say they see between 1 and 5 people a day who have come in mainly because they are lonely. If those GPs could direct people to an intervention, then this would increase their capacity to see other patients. The Department of Health and Social Care developed a number of pilots which provided good results. Mr Staniford agreed to relay the comments of the committee, concerning the GPs concerns of losing patients to interventions to the DCMS team and look at whether there was evidence in support of this.
Q –Another part aspect of bereavement is when an older person experiences the loss of a pet which may be their only companion. Have you considered involving vets?
Mr Staniford agreed that this was an interesting aspect that may not have been considered and may prove to be an effective intervention method as part of Phase 2 of the national strategy. Mr Staniford agreed to relay the comments of the committee to the DCMS team to look at ways in which this could be incorporated as part of the cross-government conversations going forward.
Q – Can the statistic on cigarettes be removed from the strategy?
Mr Staniford said that the statistic had been removed in the latest briefing and replaced with “Loneliness is as harmful as smoking and obesity.”
Q – What are the main causes leading to loneliness and social isolation amongst adults aged 65 and over?
Mr Staniford said that a modern lifestyle was a contributing factor to loneliness. Due to the constant changes that one may experience in life, especially those within modern society whom move regularly in their jobs, move for study, move for marriage, move for divorce, it encourages people to rebuild their lives and networks a number of times. However, if a number of those transitions happened all at once, it can affect people’s confidence and make reconnection more difficult which may lead to loneliness. This is particularly noticeable when combined with health issues.
Q – Is transports a significant issue within rural communities?
Mr Staniford said that work was being carried out with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to look at loneliness within rural communities and issues around transportation. Government was also reaching out to the wider communities to look at the available assets within a community and how these could be utilised to support loneliness.
Q – In your opinion, what more could be done, if anything, to prevent or reduce the impact of social isolation and loneliness?
Mr Staniford said that they key to reducing loneliness was removing the stigma around it and encouraging people to openly talk about it. If people could relate to it, then they could potentially start to see how they could make a difference. The networks were out there for people to use, the challenge was having the conversation with those who were lonely and supporting them to utilise the services available to them. Everybody arguably had a responsibility and a role to play in ensuring they recognised loneliness and offered a helping hand to those in their community who may be more vulnerable. The key aspect of the strategy was to promote that everybody had a part to play in reducing loneliness.
Q – does the evidence show that there is a difference between the north and the south of the country?
Mr Staniford said that the evidence to support this notion was not available. Loneliness was an issue that impacted on both rural and urban areas and work was being done in conjunction with councils and Heath Organisations to develop ways to identify that.